The Michael Vick case brings to mind many questions but there are two in particular that are not receiving the attention that they deserve: (1) Why does violence against dogs engender so much more public outrage than violence against human beings? (2) Why are opinions about Vick divided so strongly along racial lines? Both of these questions quickly lead the conversation into areas that are very uncomfortable for many people but these issues are too important to ignore simply for the sake of comfort.
The Chicago Tribune's Rick Morrissey discusses the first question in his Wednesday column, writing, "Dogs are defenseless, and we humans are quick to protect the defenseless. It is one of our better qualities. But a woman in the hands of a 230-pound elite athlete is more or less defenseless, too, and I can't remember any case of domestic abuse, sexual assault or murder involving an NFL player that sparked this kind of public outrage." Morrissey goes on to list several examples of NFL players who committed crimes ranging from assault to murder, noting that--with the possible exception of O.J. Simpson--none of these athletes' misdeeds aroused the public fury that Vick's actions have. He concludes, "Let's be clear: It's not that the response to Vick's alleged crimes is overboard; it's that the response to athletes' crimes against women is underwhelming. We might want to ask ourselves why that is." This point is very important. I think that a radio commentator recently got in a lot of trouble by suggesting that Vick would have been "better off" (or words to that effect) if he had raped someone than if he had abused dogs. Obviously, that is a crude and ineffective way of expressing what Morrissey said much more eloquently and directly: taking nothing away from the grave seriousness of what Michael Vick did, it is important for our society to consider why human on human crime does not evoke the outrage that human on dog crime does. No one would be "better off" if Vick had assaulted a person but we would all be a lot better off if we came to grips with our culture's strange and inconsistent attitudes toward violence.
One thing that the Vick case has in common with Simpson's double murder trial is that this country's attitudes toward the defendant are split almost exactly along racial lines. Various polls suggest that white people tend to believe that Vick is guilty, while black people tend to believe that Vick is innocent--or, at the very least, that he is being "brought down" by the powers that be for something that is not that important. Perhaps Vick's upcoming guilty plea will narrow this gulf but, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Terence Moore suggested during a recent appearance on ESPN, it seems more likely that nothing will greatly weaken the significant support that Vick enjoys in the black community. There is no question that black people have received the short end of the stick from this country's judicial system on many occasions, both as individuals and collectively, but this should not translate into blindly supporting any and every prominent black person who is charged with heinous and felonious crimes. If Vick would have been acquitted this would in no way correct previous injustices; it would just add one more injustice to the list.
It is strange--and more that a little disturbing--that anyone would derive some kind of vicarious thrill from Vick "beating the rap" without regard to whether or not he is guilty. Vick certainly deserves legal representation and the opportunity to contest the charges against him in open court--and his tremendous personal wealth enabled him to hire the finest attorneys money can buy--but in the face of an overwhelming case against him he has decided to admit his guilt. It looks like he either received bad advice or else ignored whatever good advice was given to him, because it is not a good idea to announce one's intention to prove one's innocence and then quickly have to backtrack and make a plea agreement. Vick lied to the public, to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank--yet it is very easy to find many people who will continue to insist that Vick is somehow getting a raw deal. This is every bit as surreal as the scene more than a decade ago after Simpson was acquitted in his criminal trial, whereupon we saw TV images of black people cheering as if he had just scored an 80 yard touchdown and white people literally crying at what they perceived to be a grave miscarriage of justice. Why is it so difficult to simply look at a case based on its factual merits? Without rehashing all of the particulars of the Simpson case, let's consider Vick's situation. Four witnesses plus his three former co-defendants are all set to testify to Vick's intimate involvement in an illegal dogfighting operation; they are prepared to say under oath that he provided the bulk of the funding for this criminal endeavor and that he actively participated in its most gruesome aspects, including the killing of dogs that did not perform up to expectations. There is apparently a bounty of physical evidence that shows that the dogfighting operation took place on Vick's property. I have already written that what Vick has done to himself is "tragic" but there is a big difference between lamenting that fact and simply being in denial that Vick is about to be a convicted felon.
Vick could actually go a long way toward both helping himself and narrowing the racial divide if at some point he publicly and unequivocally admits that he was wrong and apologizes for his actions. He needs to stop issuing statements through his attorney and start speaking directly to the American people. There is a lot more at stake here than whether or not he plays in the NFL again. If Vick in any way lends credence to the idea that he has been brought down unfairly--as opposed to the reality that he brought himself down with his own actions--then he will be doing a disservice not only to himself but to our society as a whole. On the other hand, if he demonstrates true contrition he can achieve a victory far more important that any that he ever won on the football field.